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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Bears and Piranhas in the Kuzbass

The man we were filming was talking on his mobile. He was holding his cellphone in his left hand and in his right he held a leash. At the end of the leash was a bear.

The man was from a small coal-mining town that has the highest number of criminal razborki per capita in the whole of the Kuzbass region.

He kept the bear at home; at his office he had piranhas.

Let's call him Volodya.

We had come to film a mine that didn't exist. That is to say the mine did exist and coal was regularly mined from it and money for the coal was received. But legally there was no mine.

This was the fashion in 1997: The World Bank gave money for closing mines. So the mines were closed even if they were profitable. They were flooded in violation of all regulations. The money made on closing them was sent to officials in Moscow, while the director of the mine made his own mini-mine in order to feed himself. There were no taxes and no reports to be filled out.

When they told me about the mini-mines, I, in Moscow, with intelligentsia-like naivete, assumed they were dug out in the wilds, hundreds of kilometers from the nearest settlement and then only to be found by secret paths that were fiercely guarded by the local mob.

Ho, ho! The mini-mines I saw were slap-bang in the middle of town.

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Volodya then took me to a picnic where other local lovers of bears and piranhas were already gathered. The journey was notable for its total disregard for road signs. On the way we discussed the careers of the local boys. One had just swiped a coal mine from a state association. Another had become head of the city's water system.

It was friendly and lively at the picnic. The courtyard was full of Landcruisers, there was a cheerful glow from the barbecue around which about 10 men in black leather jackets with cropped hair stood talking. We got out of the jeep and dreamily I said, "What a shame -- we should have filmed the bear with an automatic rifle in his paws. That would have been a great shot."

"Yeah," Volodya said sadly, "and we've got an automatic rifle at home. Never mind, there's a bear and an automatic rifle here as well."

Automatic rifles are a well-known national fashion. Bears are clearly a local thing.

"Don't joke," I said. "If the police see it they'll come down hard on us."

"No, they won't. They won't, will they Valya?"

"I won't," came a voice from the barbecue.

Generally scenes such as this can only be observed in the Kuzbass, in areas where there are still unprivatized mining companies. Seven years ago this was the scene everywhere. Then the coal was state owned, the directors were shot like hares in spring and the coal was stolen like potatoes from the field of a collective farm.

All the biggest mining associations in the Kuzbass were created under officials and worked for bandits -- but they were bought neither by bandits nor by officials.

They say Severny Kuzbass was formed from various mines by Alexander Yevtushenko, a first deputy minister for the coal industry, and it was bought by Igor Zozin. Kuzbassugol was formed from three associations by one of the directors: Mazakin. He put it together and became Governor Tuleyev's deputy, then it was bought by Magnitogorsk Metal Works together with Severstal.

The new owner brought order to the company. The mines are no longer closed. Directors are no longer shot. And the cops don't pop round for shashlik with the mob -- instead they go cap in hand to Moscow.

People aren't happy with their new bosses. The Muscovites.

Yulia Latynina is a journalist with ORT.